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November 30, 2009

More details on Washington National Opera's cutbacks

Official word has arrived on the changes at Washington National Opera reported earlier.

The number of productions will decrease from the current six to five (down from seven last season, eight a few years ago). Eight staff positions are being eliminated; furloughs will be taken by those who remain. Executive director Mark Weinstein is being shifted to fundraising and planning duties. Although the company has balanced two budgets in a row, a reliance on "a few generous donors" has necessitated a change in direction. Placido Domingo, whose current contract expires in a couple years, remains general director.

Here are excerpts from the release (UPDATE: A quote from Domingo was added later in the day, and I've now included it here):


Washington National Opera today announced changes to its business model, including reducing the number of productions in future seasons and reducing administrative and production staff. The adjustments address long-term systemic expense and earned and unearned income challenges. The move to “right-size” the company ensures continued artistic quality and fiscal stability ...

“For several years, WNO has operated in an unstable economic environment in which our expenses outstripped our ability to raise funds through donations and ticket sales,” stated WNO President Kenneth R. Feinberg. “These systemic challenges must be addressed now, so that WNO can continue to produce great opera and engage our community through our education, training and outreach programs.”

Beginning with the 2010-11 season, WNO will offer five mainstage operas as compared to six productions in the current season and seven in the previous season. The reduced season is designed to optimize the ratio of income to expenses, and to ensure that the company continues to offer productions of high artistic quality while operating in a fiscally responsible manner. Free and low-cost education and public programs that serve the community, as well as training programs for opera artists and administrators, will remain unchanged.

“The company has made positive progress in reducing costs and expenses, and has achieved a balanced budget for two straight years,” stated Feinberg. “Unfortunately these reductions by themselves are not enough to sustain the company into the future and the balanced budgets were achieved, in part, through special funding by a few exceptionally generous donors. After careful analysis of different scenarios, the WNO leadership has determined that a five-opera season and associated expense reductions is the most responsible strategy to overcome this reliance on special funding and to develop a business model that is sustainable. By taking proactive steps now, the new model will allow WNO to realistically live within its means today and carefully plan growth for the future ...”

Feinberg continued, saying that, “in light of these changes, our Executive Director, Mark Weinstein, in lieu of his day-to-day administrative duties, will be focusing exclusively on fundraising and broad-range financial strategic planning to support WNO's achieving its business goals."

As a result of the reduced season, Washington National Opera has scaled its staff. Eight positions within Marketing, Development, Finance, Administration, Artistic and Production departments were eliminated, with responsibilities being reallocated to remaining staff. Washington National Opera’s Center for Education and Training, which houses WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program as well as the Education and Community Programs department, is unaffected by these changes.

Additionally, the company has frozen salaries and has suspended its 403(b) matching contributions. To address short-term cash flow challenges, staff will take a one-week furlough in the last week of the calendar year 2009, with additional rolling furloughs in Spring 2010.

In closing, Feinberg added, “so many opera companies across the country face economic challenges today, and many of our sister companies have taken similar steps. I along with the board and staff feel confident that these changes are correct for our company and our patrons. It is very difficult to make these kinds of decisions and the WNO family extends its sincerest sympathies to those affected by the changes. However, I am confident that WNO is ensuring that we will continue to do what we do best: produce great opera.”

WNO General Director Plácido Domingo stated: “While the changes made today are heartbreaking, WNO’s board leadership made these changes with the best interests of the company in mind. I regret the decisions, and yet, I support them because they will allow WNO to produce opera of a high quality, with world-class artists and productions, and maintain its award-winning education, training and outreach programs. A five-opera season, while far from ideal, will allow the company to maintain the standard of excellence for which we are so well known. I am deeply saddened that these changes are affecting WNO’s staff, who deserve great thanks for their service to the company.  It is my profound hope that WNO will regain solid financial ground very quickly and that we will once again be able to offer more productions and performances.”

For more on the WNO situation, check out the blog post by my collegue Anne Midgette.

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:43 PM | | Comments (3)

Cutbacks, reshuffling expected at Washington National Opera

Generally reliable sources report a shakeup at Washington National Opera. From what I can gather, it looks like the financial picture is cloudy enough to necessitate a reduction in the number of productions next season (for the second year in a row), a reduction in staff, and a reshuffling of management.

Although Mark Weinstein has been credited with strengthening WNO's financial picture since becoming executive direction in Feb. 2008 (he streamlined the staff a few months into the job and advocated postponing the company's planned "Ring" Cycle because of insufficient funding), he will apparently be moved out of that job (not necessarily out of the company). No sign of any changes to Placido Domingo's role as general director. 

A glance at WNO tax forms reveals financial ups and downs in recent years -- a nearly $8 million deficit in 2006, but a $2.5 million surplus in 2007; an increase in ticket sales in '07 over the previous year, but losses both years from the organization's fundraising/social events (such as the annual ball). The annual budget is around $32 million.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:01 AM | | Comments (0)

November 28, 2009

Blast from the Past: Benno Moiseiwitsch

It has been said that the past is like a foreign country -- they do things differently there. I guess one reason I love dipping into the past is because they made music differently there, too.

The hard-to-define concept called style can be heard instantly and affectingly in so many artists from the old days; music becomes a whole new experience in their hands or vocies. Contemporary performers would do well to explore the legacy of all that style, a legacy that is readily available on disc and, often, video. (I think the coolest thing about YouTube is how much of this prized classical trove gets posted there. Such treasures may not be as easy to find as that Adam Lambert video everyone is -- yawn -- talking about, but they're sure worth hunting.)

For this week's blast from the musical past, I thought of Odessa-born pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963). You don't hear his name too much nowadays, outside of the most ardent piano buffs, yet he was undeniably one of the true greats.

He had an amazing artistry, nowhere more evident than in his recording of Rachmaninoff's transcription of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Even Rachmaninoff was said to be greatly impressed with Moiseiwitsch's performance of the piece, and no wonder. The articulation, miraculously, achieves nearly as much of an the elfin quality as an orchestra's strings can in the Mendelssohn original. But it's not just a demonstration of technical control. Moiseiwitsch adds irresisitible charm, elegance, coloring, atmosphere -- in a word, style.

As an extra treat, I've also included a video clip of the pianist in his late years playing a Rachmaninoff prelude with typical, understated eloquence:

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:30 PM | | Comments (0)

November 26, 2009

A musical interlude for Thanksgiving Day

Thanks for being so patient, cherished blog readers, while I've been distracted from posting.

Spent Wednesday writing stuff for print (remember print?). For the holiday, my S.O. and I are off to join family and friends at my Parental Units' house in Northern Virginia for main-meal feasting, then dessert-diving at my sister's place nearby.

Hope y'all will have a splendid time whatever you do, wherever you are.

Meanwhile, to get in the spirit for this great American holiday, here's an interesting version of "America the Beautiful" from that singer who you may have noticed I'm still crazy about after all these years:

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:38 AM | | Comments (0)

November 24, 2009

Musicologist HC Robbins Landon dies at 83

There are reports in Tuesday's British press of the death on Nov. 20 of HC Robbins Landon, an extraordinary, American-born musicologist who had a great deal to do with major re-evaluations of Haydn and Mozart. He was 83.

Mr. Landon's books enjoyed global popularity, especially a series on Mozart that helped out to rest various myths about the composer's death. Although he fell for a scam in the 1990s involving supposedly long-lost Haydn sonatas, Mr. Landon's reputation as a scholar remained secure.

Informative appreciations are in the Telegraph and Guardian.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:51 PM | | Comments (0)

Recital of Schubert songs at certifiably trendy An die Musik

A day after the New York Times travel supplement carried a story on Baltimore that included An die Musik among "essential" night life stops, the concert venue/retail CD shop presented a recital of Schubert lieder performed by two Peabody-trained artists. Alas, the validation (or at least suggestion) of trendiness from the Times did not lead to a stampede at the box office Monday night, but the few who turned out were amply rewarded.

Baritone Ryan de Ryke and pianist Daniel Schlosberg have demonstrated on previous joint appearances around this area that they enjoy a smooth rapport. It seemed smoother than ever on this occasion, as the two explored the theme of nature in Schubert songs, served up in groups of three or four at a time under such headings as "Man and Mountain" and "Forest Murmurs." The thoughtful choices added up to a cohesive, consistently engaging program; the musicality was on a high level throughout.

It's possible to wish that de Ryke had a little more

weight in his tone, a little more control when shifting dynamics, but it's impossible to miss the sensitivity he brings to text and melodic line alike. He was in his element here, tapping deeply into the poetry and communicating powerfully (even the lesser verses spoke tellingly). The baritone's rapt delivery of the expansive "Des Fischers Liebesgluck" was but one example; his warmly shaped phrasing of "Der Winterabend" was another.

Schlosberg's combination of refined technique and subtle shading ensured that the accompaniment enjoyed the equal footing Schubert intended. Very classy pianism.

If you missed the recital (heck, I know you did), here's a sample of the de Ryke/Scholsberg chemistry, filmed at the University of Notre Dame (where the pianist is an artist-in-residence). This is a Schubert song that wasn't on the program, but, given its references to nature, could have been -- "Nachtstuck," which describes an old man contemplating the forest on a misty night and taking up his harp to sing of the long, not unwelcome sleep of death that awaits him:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:22 AM | | Comments (0)

Baltimore Opera Theatre debuts at the Hippodrome

For the benefit of my faithful, treasured blog readers who may not hunt around the Sun site for other goodies written by moi, I should point out that my review of Baltimore Opera Theatre's debut production of "The Barber of Seville" at the Hippodrome appears in my Tuesday Arts Scene column.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:39 AM | | Comments (2)

November 23, 2009

Riccardo Muti leads New York Philharmonic in DC concert

riccardo mutiNobody fits the description of aristocratic conductor better than Riccardo Muti. If all he had going for him was height, classic Italian features and fab hair, he'd probably still be a major global star.

The Neapolitan Muti, of course, has all the extra ingredients, too -- superb technique, deeply considered interpretive ideas, charisma that inspires players and audiences alike. You can disagree with some of his choices (I think his tendency to ban unwritten high notes in opera can be a bit severe), but still be enormously impressed.

It's no wonder the New York Philharmonic wooed Muti intensely for the music director post (he demurred, and will take the helm of the Chicago Symphony next year instead), and it's no wonder that the orchestra plays very well for him when he graces the podium as a guest. Such was the case Sunday afternoon as Muti and the New Yorkers made some splendid music together at the Kennedy Center in a rich program presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society.

The Philharmonic has been in superb shape lately. Even Lorin Maazel's severest critics will grant that he did some wonderful fine-tuning of the ensemble during his tenure; his successor, Alan Gilbert, has been building on that quality (as I got to experience during my last New York visit).

Muti drew on all of the orchestra's considerable strengths to deliver a gang-buster account of

Liszt's "Les Preludes" at the start of the program. Having just heard that composer's "Totentanz" the night before at the Baltimore Symphony, I was struck again by how much great stuff there really is in even the most blatant of Liszt's works. It's fashionable in some quarters to trash Liszt as an empty hack, but I'll never understand that sort of thinking. Liszt cut a unique path that got right to the heart of Romanticism early on, and he clearly exerted an enormous influence on many others.

"Les Preludes" is brilliantly constructed, superbly orchestrated -- and awfully entertaining. Muti had the piece sounding very fresh and forward-looking (you could easily get a foretaste of Wagner's "Siegfried" in some of the woodwind-shaded passages). The playing was not just technically sterling, but filled with nuance and character.

Same for the sweeping account of Elgar's "In the South," an eventful musical portrait of Italy that hardly ever turns up in concerts on these shores. Muti ensured that the score's Straussian flurries and imaginatively developed themes emerged in telling detail, and he again had the ensemble responding brilliantly -- lush string tone, myriad shading in the winds, a mix of power and suppleness from the brass. Cynthia Phelps delivered the substantial viola solo with remarkable warmth.

Surprisingly, the excerpts from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" that closed the concert proved less consistently impressive. The opening "Monatgues and Capulets" movement, for example, didn't come close to the visceral impact and dramatic contrasts in dynamics that Gergiev and the London Symphony achieved in a performance in the same venue last March. Muti kept the lid on, a restraint that also kept "The Death of Tybalt" from delivering a knock-out punch. And some of the Philharmonic's playing wasn't quite as striking as on the first half of the program; the violins did not summon quite the level of silkiness that can give the ballet's most lyrical passages an ethereal beauty.

That said, there was still much to admire in the performance, and in the obvious connection between Muti and the musicians. The number of smiles I spotted on faces in the orchestra throughout the concert spoke volumes.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:14 AM | | Comments (3)

Alsop, Thibaudet, Baltimore Symphony face 'judgment day' in style

One of the most durable tunes over the centuries is the "Dies Irae," written in the Middle Ages for the Latin Requiem, to a text describing the “day of wrath, the day of judgment” that will be faced by the dead. Not the cheeriest of subject matters, but it inspired a pretty catchy melody, especially the first seven notes.

All sorts of composers have made use of that theme in all sorts of ways, a point Marin Alsop drove home in her latest Baltimore Symphony Orchestra collaboration, one overflowing with references to the “Dies Irae.” Anchored by Berlioz’ “Symphonie fantastique” – the finale’s depiction of a Witches’ Sabbath makes fabulous use of the wrathful tune – the program had room for two more choices, one fairly mainstream, one from a little farther afield.

The familiar item was Liszt’s “Totentanz” for piano and orchestra, a work that beats the “Dies Irae” to death (so to speak). The novelty was the finale from Michael Daugherty’s “Metropolis” Symphony -- the “Red Cape Tango,” which gets its melodic wind primarily from that same medieval ditty. That ominous tango goes on a bit too long for its own good, but

it’s brilliantly orchestrated, as is usually the case with Daugherty. Alsop had the score churning with an edgy power Friday night at the Meyerhoff and drew some hot playing from the ensemble.

“Totentanz” provided a vehicle for the previous week’s starry soloist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet. I rather doubt it is possible to tackle the showy, even slightly nutty piano part with more sizzling virtuosity and variety of expressive coloring than Thibaudet demonstrated. Even when he plunged into the Liszt-as-Liberace-precursor passages, the pianist maintained a convincing sense of style, always managing to find true musical worth in the material. A fun performance. Alsop’s steady partnering and the BSO’s vivid work added to the enjoyment.

“Symphonie fantastique” was revolutionary when it was new, as revolutionary as anything by Beethoven – who died just a few years before Berlioz created it – and it can still sound startling today when played with freshness and boldness. Alsop's account of of the music generated a good deal of both qualities. The electrical current could have been even a little stronger in a few spots, the lyricism sweeter in others, but this was an arresting performance nonetheless. The last two movements, in particular, delivered sizable jolts. The BSO responded with admirably tight, character-rich playing. The English horn and oboe solos by Jane Marvine and Katherine Needleman, respectively, sang out exquisitely.

The whole evening proved rewarding, right down to the remarkably cough-, chat- and cell phone-free audience.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:56 AM | | Comments (4)

November 20, 2009

Peabody Opera Theatre presents 'Cosi fan tutte'

It wasn't Peabody Opera Theatre's shining hour, vocally speaking, but Thursday's performance of "Cosi" had its rewards (an alternate cast sings Friday and Sunday).

My review is posted elsewhere online; an abbreviated version will see the light of print on Sunday.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:43 PM | | Comments (1)

Exceptional Swedish soprano Elisabeth Soderstrom dies at 82

The long list of departed opera stars sadly grew again Friday with the death of Elisabeth Soderstrom in Stockholm at the age of 82, following a stroke.

The Swedish soprano, born in 1927, was an extraordinarily versatile, elegant musician who enjoyed a long, much-admired career that officially began in 1947. She sang at the world's greatest opera houses in repertoire ranging from Mozart and Donizetti to Berg and Janacek. She enriched the opera world wherever and whenever she performed.

Here are a few examples of Miss Soderstrom's artistry, singing one of Grieg's most beautiful songs, the lovely aria from Dvorak's "Rusalka," and the sublime trio from "Der Rosenkavalier":

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:13 PM | | Comments (1)

Blast from the Past: cellist Gregor Piatigorsky

Gregor Piatigorsky, at 6'6'', was among the tallest of the musical giants from the good old days. The cellist's artistry towered impressively, too. He had superb taste, a formidabe technique and a warm personality that disarmed people onstage and off.

Piatigorsky, who died in 1976, left a mark on the cello world comparable to that left by Heifetz on the violin world. (I wonder how many of yesterday's musical greats would easily find a manager, let alone a record deal and major concert bookings, if they were facing today's classical scene, with its weakness for the fluffed and buffed, the mediocre-but-marketable.)

For this week's blast from the past, I thought we could use a reminder of Piatigorsky genuine, refined, richly communicative musicianship. Here's sample of him playing Bach, Chopin and Faure:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:19 AM | | Comments (5)

November 19, 2009

Wagner in concert form: Washington National Opera shows how to do it

Opera is the highest of the art forms -- some of us believe, at any rate -- because it combines music, acting, visuals (scenery and costumes) and sometimes dance. Opera performed only in concert form must be a lesser entity, right? Not if you do it up proper, the way Washington National Opera did with "Gotterdammerung."

There are fully staged productions that would have a hard time measuring up to what I encountered last Sunday at the Kennedy Center. (I'm finally reporting on it now under the better-late-than-never assumption.)

This was the second of two performances the company gave as a way of making amends for the suspension of its first attempt at tackling all of Wagner's "Ring" Cycle. Budget constraints forced the postponement of what was to have been a staged "Gotterdammerung" this season, the last installment of WNO's intriguing take on the "Ring," one filled with American iconography.

WNO has promised to do that staged version of "Gotterdammerung" in the near future, together with the other three pieces of the cycle. (There was no repeat of that promise, however, in the program message from general director Placido Domingo, who wrote only that "these performances ... mark the conclusion of WNO's production of the 'Ring.' ")

The company delivered the concert-"dammerung" in the KC Opera House and kept the orchestra in the pit, as it would have been for a sets-and-all production. That was a huge

plus, since it allowed for a proper balance with singers. It also meant that the cast had room to move and interact, rather than being largely confined to the rim of the stage (as was the case when WNO brought a concert version of "Turandot" to Baltimore's Lyric Opera House last season, with the orchestra onstage).

With some input from assistant director Andrea Dorf (there was no official director) and ideas from several of the singers, the performance had a remarkable amount of what could be described as staging. This was not a stand-and-bark affair. Other than the presence of music stands in most of the scenes, it didn't look that much different from what you might encounter in a trendy, minimalist production, right down to the contemporary dress, atmospheric lighting (by Mark McCullough), and a couple of chairs.

What mattered, needless to say (and you thought I'd never get to this), was the music-making. Very hot.

It's no secret that there's a global shortage of the type of Wagnerian voices that soared once upon a time, and WNO didn't magically deliver a cast of legend-worthy vocal cords. But this was about as good as you could hear anywhere. Above all, everyone brought to the assignment such commitment and style that the music came fully to life. The five hours passed by in a flash.

Irene Theorin, as Brunnhilde, offered laser-like accuracy of articulation and a mostly warm, tireless tone. Jon Frederic West was the fearless Siegfried, literally jumping into the role and producing a bright sound that only rarely lost its steadiness.

Alan Held made a compelling Gunther. Gidon Saks could have used a little more tonal smoothness and, in the lower range, solidity, but his singing as Hagen registered with considerable dramatic weight. Elizabeth Bishop (2nd Norn and Waltraute) offered very impressive vocalism. Gordon Hawkins was the vivid Alberich. Fredrika Brillembourg (1st Norn) sang with admirable richness of tone. Bernadette Flaitz, as Getrune, began the afternoon not always centered on pitch, but she finished up strongly.

Philippe Auguin conducted masterfully, shaping the score with an unerring sense of momentum, proportion and sensitivity. The orchestra obviously enjoyed working with him (lots of tell-tale foot-stomping in the pit when the conductor entered for each act), and the playing had lots of fire and color that made up for occasional slips (the horns were certainly willing, but their notes were often weak).

All in all, a first-rate effort, and a persuasive affirmation of how powerful opera-in-concert can be.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:58 PM | | Comments (1)

November 18, 2009

Saluting Johnny Mercer on his centennial (part 2)

As a commenter on my first Mercer salute pointed out, it would have been nice to include clips of the great lyricist singing.

Mercer had an unmistakable tone, with its Southern twang, and superb phrasing that was the equal of the best singers of his day. And, needless to say, when Mercer sang one of his songs, it was with the voice of authority.

Here are some examples, including a couple of his lesser-known songs:

Read more about Johnny Mercer.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:05 AM | | Comments (0)

Saluting centennial of Johnny Mercer, master lyricist

This is the day to salute Johnny Mercer, who was born 100 years ago, on Nov. 18, 1909.

He is credited with the lyrics for about 1,000 songs, including an exceptional number of what have long been recognized as standards of the great American songbook. Mercer's use of language could be just too "marvelous for words," as some of the past century's finest melody writers discovered.

I've always felt that the best popular songs, where text and tune are perfectly united, deserve to be ranked alongside the best classical art songs. Many of the works that bear the Mercer trademark certainly can be so ranked.

To celebrate his centennial, here are a few of my favorite Mercer songs, sung by some fabulous artists who make the most out of his lyrics -- and yes, as any of my devoted readers would expect, that means Streisand will be included:

Read more about Johnny Mercer.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:02 AM | | Comments (3)

November 17, 2009

The blissful sounds of silence

If you attend a lot of live performances -- of any kind -- you know well how the people around you can mar the experience. I think I must be some kind of magnet for misbehaving cretins, since they're always sitting near me -- the talkers, the page-turners, the candy-cravers, the ladies with 500 clanging bracelets crammed onto their arms so that they emit a chorus of "Jingle Bells" with every slight move.

Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center Opera House, while a really terrific concert version of "Gotterdammerung" was being performed by Washington National Opera, a couple of over-aged lovebirds in the row ahead kept up a nonstop series of distractions: kiss-kiss, head on shoulder for a few seconds, kiss-kiss, whisper, head back on shoulder, kiss kiss, whisper. I was amazed that they lasted through the five-hour event and, sure enough, they were the first on their feet to applaud when it was over -- had they actually heard anything of the performance?

And then there was the guy in one of the balconies who screamed out something near the end of the first act. I swear I thought I heard "Wotan!", but that was probably my imagination. My guess is that the man had fallen asleep and was dreaming; or maybe he had been dragged to the opera by a domineering spouse and was expressing his annoyance. Either way, not the sort of thing you want to hear during Wagner.

Oh yes, there was also the unfortunate

malfunctioning hearing aid that squealed on and on through the start of the first act -- in my row, of course. At least that was not deliberate.

I had quite a different situation the night before in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, where Kiri Te Kanawa gave a recital, and I realized part-way through why the large audience hardly made a sound -- the soprano sang softly and intimately through most of the program. If you wanted to hear, you had to behave. Sure enough, even the usual coughing and sneezing and wheezing seemed to diminish as the recital proceeded. It was a wonderful effect -- the beauty of the singing, the refinement of Brian Zeger's piano accompaniment and a large audience hanging onto every note.

I really do think it was the nature of the music-making that did the trick. I've noticed the same thing at an unamplified play when the actors speak subtly. People really can listen quietly if they try. Too bad it's not the rule.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:26 AM | | Comments (8)

November 16, 2009

In farewell (or not), Kiri Te Kanawa demonstrates her lasting vocal beauty

For quite a while now, there has been talk of Kiri Te Kanawa retiring, at least from the opera stage. But each time someone declares that she's heading for the exit door, she says (as she did to me in a phone interview the other day), "Hang on."

That happened again Saturday night when Te Kanawa (or Dame Kiri, as Her Majesty's subjects would say -- she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire 27 years ago) gave what was billed as her "farewell" DC recital, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society at the Kennedy Center. The glamorous, decidedly youthful-looking 65-year-old soprano took a moment during the concert to say, in essence, "Hang on." She suggested that, since she had performed in Washington "on average every five years" since 1982, she could well be back. If she sounds half as good in 2014 as she did Saturday, I say, bring her on.

I don't want to overstate the situation in this recital. Te Kanawa did not

summon as much tonal gold and silk as in her prime. Every now and then, especially when singing the "ee" sound, the voice thinned out. But what registered most strongly was the overall warmth and tenderness in the vocalism. This was an opportunity to bask in lovely music sung with a lovely style and given lovely accompaniment by pianist Brian Zeger (his technical and expressive gifts proved formidable all evening). It wasn't necessarily an occasion for digging deep or making profound interpretive statements, but there's still a lot to be said for straightforward, elegant, thoroughly beautiful music-making.

The program was weighted towards slow, often soft pieces -- "I don't apologize," Te Kanawa told the crowd, "I sing them because I like them" -- and that gave the soprano abundant opportunity to float many an exquisite, long-held note. Liszt's "Oh! Quand je dors" was one example; Canteloube's "La Delaissado" was another.

I wish the soprano had gone in for full embellishment of the melodic lines in a couple of Handel arias, but her noble phrasing provided ample reward. It would also have been nice to hear a little emotion on the word "Helas!" in Faure's "Apres un reve," but her appraoch to that gem of a song certainly was, well, dreamy. A group of Strauss songs was delivered with vintage Te Kanawa sensitivity.

In a gracious touch, she shared the stage with the WPAS Children of the Gospel Choir -- quite the crowd-pleasing ensemble -- for the "Pie Jesu" from Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Requiem" and the classic Cesar Franck hymn "Panis Angelicus." Directed by Stanley J. Thurston (he didn't need to conduct so broadly), the young singers had some intonation slippage, but proved quite expressive.

In her concluding group of Italian songs, including a couple by Puccini, Te Kanawa sang with a good deal of character and nuance. There were two encores -- "O mio babbino caro" and a Maori folk song, "Po Kari-Kari Anna," the latter sung a cappella to particularly entrancing effect.

The classical music world, just like those of the pop culture variety, craves -- and maybe even needs -- stars. Te Kanawa has long been one of the brightest. As this recital demonstrated, she's still glowing.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:34 AM | | Comments (3)

November 13, 2009

Marin Alsop, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Baltimore Symphony deliver uncommon versions of Gershwin

A big story — maybe the biggest — in classical music over the past 30 years or so is the historical authenticity movement, the attempt to re-create the sounds and playing styles of distant times. This obsession generated a revolution in the approach to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and other pre-20th century composers. It’s less common to find advocates for going “authentic” with post-20th century repertoire, although there certainly are opportunities ripe for re-thinking.

Personally, I’d love to see more attention paid to the way the works of Mahler, for example, were performed during, or closer to, his own day. That might have added an extra dimension last week, when Marin Alsop led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Fourth. But Alsop is taking quite an interesting spin on the authenticity approach with the BSO’s current program, devoted totally to Gershwin and showcasing the superb French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

As it turns out, this presentation raises vexing questions about the whole historic reclamation business. It’s one thing to return to the original scoring for Gershwin’s most celebrated instrumental piece, “Rhapsody in Blue.” But what about reviving an orchestration of the Concerto in F that Gershwin didn’t prepare or approve, but was written by the same guy who did that first version of the “Rhapsody”? Where’s an ethicist when you really need one?

The story of the “Rhapsody”

is well known. Gershwin had only a few weeks to create something for the “Experiment in Modern Music” concert in 1924 given by Paul Whiteman’s band in New York, so the composer gladly accepted the help of Whiteman’s arranger, Ferde Grofé.

The result was a brilliantly lean, yet very colorful, orchestration — lots of woodwinds and brass, banjo, bass, an extra piano, percussion, and about 10 violins. Grofé subsequently prepared a symphonic orchestration of the “Rhapsody,” with all the usual strings, the version most often encountered.

In 1925, when Gershwin was commissioned to write a concerto, he felt comfortable enough to do the orchestration himself, and did so with flair, fashioning a full tonal fabric to support the solo piano. Three years later, Whiteman asked Grofé to prepare a jazz orchestra version of the Concerto in F, with more or less the same instrumental configuration of that first “Rhapsody.” Gershwin reportedly took offense.

Alsop recorded Grofé’s long-forgotten 1928 arrangement almost 20 years ago, and she has returned to it now, with enthusiastic support from Thibaudet. Hearing this version of the concerto on the same evening as the “Rhapsody” in its original guise makes for a fascinating experience.

On Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, it was easy to accept both pieces as “authentic,” at least in the sense of capturing a 1920s jazz flavor. (The program is repeated tonight and Sunday at Meyerhoff, Saturday at Strathmore.) The “Rhapsody” always seems more real in the first version, anyway, especially when it reaches the big, lyrical theme, which can sound too syrupy in the lusher orchestration.

And the keyboard solo can emerge with a more spontaneous quality when heard against the jazz orchestra, which was the case Thursday as Thibaudet charged into the “Rhapsody” with an almost giddy, even reckless energy. Some notes disappeared in the blur when the pianist hit warp-speed, but the playing was otherwise as precise as it was fresh and instinctive.

Alsop offered tight support, but did not always get as much snap out of the ensemble as the pianist was producing. Steven Barta delivered the famous sliding clarinet solo with panache. (Purists will note that there were more violins onstage than the Whiteman band used for the 1924 premiere, so this wasn't an exercise in total historic authenticty.)

Thibaudet proved equally impressive in the concerto, phrasing with an ease that reflected his own longtime embrace of jazz, and with a refined sense of lyricism for the work’s more tender side. The pianist enjoyed supple collaboration from Alsop and a vivid complement of players. Andrew Balio shaped the trumpet solo in the Adagio warmly.

The effect of the Grofé orchestration was striking, especially the slightly dissonant rumbles in the opening pages of the first movement (taking the place of the snare drum rolls Gershwin used in his orchestration), and the sensual spice of saxophones.

It can be argued that the Grofé arrangement undercuts the whole point of the concerto, which was one of Gershwin’s most important demonstrations of how the symphonic idiom could be fused with jazz. Without the full orchestra sound he conceived, it’s a very different piece. But, heck, it’s still a great one, and it’s fun hearing this alternative.

Issues of authenticity are not involved with the composer’s “I Got Rhythm” Variations. There is only one version (as far as I know), and it’s all Gershwin. It’s a slight work, but full of sparkling color. Thibaudet, Alsop and company gave it an effective performance.

The BSO rounded the evening off with the overtures to two great Gershwin musicals, “Girl Crazy” and “Of Thee I Sing.” Alsop had both of them flowing brightly — and sounding thoroughly authentic.

At the start of the evening, BSO president Paul Meecham saluted violinist Edward Patey and trumpeter Edward Hoffman for their decades of service to the orchestra. Both will retire at the end of the year.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:33 PM | | Comments (2)

Blast from the Past: Richard Tauber

Maybe it's all the rain we've been having lately in dear old Baltimore, but I just had to hear something sunny for my weekly trip down Nostalgia Lane. And that made me think of the ever-sunny voice of Richard Tauber, the German-born tenor who had one of the sweetest, warmest tones ever documented on recording.

I could hear this guy sing anything -- and he sang just about anything, too, from lieder to Broadway. I'll start with some Schumann, sung by Tauber portraying a certain Herr SteigIer in one of his films. Then an example of the lighter fare he sang so charmingly. After much internal debate, I settled on "They Say It's Wonderful" from Irving Berlin's "Annie Get Your Gun" -- not the first thing you might associate with Tauber. I think it's a gem of a performance, recorded in 1947, a year before the tenor's death.

Finally, since Tauber knew his way around a podium, I thought I'd include a non-vocal example of his artistry, too, conducting of the overture to Johann Strauss' "Die Fledermaus." Note the number of his idiosyncratic touches, especially the very slow tempo for the waltz (starting at 2:23 on the clip) and the deliciously gradual move into tempo for the Act 1 trio (at 4:51).

Here, then, three cloud-lifting blasts from the past:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:29 AM | | Comments (0)

November 12, 2009

Update on conductor Leonard Slatkin's recovery from heart attack

Leonard Slatkin, the dynamic American conductor who recently became music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra after a long tenure with Washington's National Symphony, is still on the mend from a heart attack earlier this month in Holland.

The Detroit Free Press reports: "He’s back in America with his doctors and they’ve said, 'Go rest and come back at the end of November and we’ll do a check-up,' " said Slatkin’s manager R. Douglas Sheldon. "We anticipate this will go smoothly and he’ll be back on the podium soon." Slatkin, 65, is now expected to return to the podium in Detroit during the second week of December.

As a little get-well wish for a conductor I greatly admire, especially for his enthusiastic devotion to American music (classical and classy pop alike), here he is at the 2004 Last Night of the Proms in London, leading an endearing performance by baritone Thomas Allen of a song I hope Slatkin will be singing to himself real soon:

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:38 PM | | Comments (1)

Jean-Yves Thibaudet to play rare version of Gershwin's Concerto in F

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra welcomes back French pianist (and fashion plate) Jean-Yves Thibaudet for two weeks of programs, the first one devoted to Gershwin. In today's paper, I've got a story about Thibaudet that you may find worth a read.

What makes this weekend's Gershwin fest of particular interest is the inclusion of a rarely heard jazz orchestra arrangement by Ferde Grofe of

the Concerto in F, an arrangement requested by Paul Whiteman for use with his band. 

I had forgotten (until she reminded me) about the recording Marin Alsop made of that arrangement with her Concordia orchestra almost 20 years ago -- "When I was in my real jazz phase," she told me earlier this week. I had filed that disc with my Gershwin music theater CDs, since the big item on the recording is his forgotten mini-opera "Blue Monday," which Alsop and the BSO will present later this season. (One of these days I've got to prepare a thorough catalog of my CDs. Too daunting a task.)

Anyway, the concerto certainly takes on a different, lean flavor in the Grofe version. Alsop tracked this arrangement down at Williams College, which housed the Paul Whiteman archives. The music wasn't in the best shape in the early '90s. "Reading Sanskrit would be easier than reading the original score," Alsop said. The parts have since been recopied in preparation for the BSO concerts. Should be fun hearing the concerto live.

The BSO performances with Thibaudet of that work, along with "Rhapsody in Blue" and "I Got Rhythm" Variations, are being recorded for Decca. That will be the third label to feature Alsop and the orchestra since she became music director.

The BSO has been a great advocate for Gershwin for quite a while, including during the tenure of Yuri Temirkanov, who was a huge fan of the composer and led some very snazzy performances of his work.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:56 AM | | Comments (0)

November 10, 2009

Music we've been missing (part 14): Florent Schmitt

Locally, we've heard a good amount of Debussy and Ravel, but what about another French master of richly colored, highly atmospheric music? I'd say we could use a dose of Florent Schmitt, whose work has much to recommend it, but hardly ever turns up in the concert hall.

Some of his pieces would not only make a worthy substitute for such well-worn things as "La valse" or "La mer," but even for the popular Strauss tone poems -- Schmitt's writing often suggests a fusion of Impressionism and late-German romanticism.

Here are a couple examples of what we've been missing: the finales from the lush "La Tragedie de Salome" for orchestra from 1910 and the downright stunning "Psalm XLVII" for chorus and orchestra from 1904:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:34 PM | | Comments (3)

Sylvia McNair powerful in Weill-filled "Songspiel" from American Opera Theater

A Kurt Weill song can't be mistaken for anything else. There's something tense in the warmest of his melodic lines, something pointed in the simplest of his harmonies. And that's even before you consider the words. Weill was inspired by some remarkable lyricists -- Bertolt Brecht, Ira Gershwin, Walter Mehring, Roger Fernay, Maurice Magre, Maxwell Anderson -- who found fresh ways of addressing the old issues of love and loss.

Out of some 17 Weill songs, American Opera Theater artistic director Timothy Nelson has fashioned an engrossing, even edgy new work called "Songspiel," which opened last weekend at the Theatre Project.

The music comes from such shows as "Happy End," "Mahagonny" and "Lost in the Stars" (the title song from that score isn't an entirely comfortable fit for "Songspiel"). Nelson also mined several of the stand-alone songs Weill wrote that were famously revived and revitalized by soprano Teresa Stratas on the 1981 recording "The Unknown Kurt Weill."

"Songspiel" is first and foremost a vehicle for another stellar soprano, Sylvia McNair, who originally signed on to perform Weill's "The Seven Deadly Sins." When that project had to be scrapped (the Weill Foundation's insistence on a full orchestra proved problematic for the small company), McNair stayed on and Nelson sought another way to capitalize on the possibility of presenting of one of America's most gifted and engaging vocal artists.

His concept for "Songspiel" involves a narrative about

a woman battered by life and nature -- the latter quite literally, with references to Hurricane Katrina. (Interesting how the song "Complaint de la Seine," with its description of bodies and discarded things at the bottom of an iconic French river, can easily conjure up images of the horror in New Orleans.) There is no traditional dialog, just song after song, creating an increasingly detailed portrait of despondency.

The homeless woman, identified as Jenny I, has a history of bruising love affairs, drug abuse and prostitution. In flashback, that life is relived. Woven into this dark world are Jenny II and Johnny, who interact with or merely observe the central character.

If the concept of "Songspiel" doesn't always persuade, if the troubling issues raised by the show don't always get enough context, the result is nonetheless an evening of vivid theater, directed with an imaginative touch by Nelson.

I caught the show last Sunday evening and found McNair a riveting presence. She commanded attention from the start, wearing the rummaged-for clothes of a street person, shuffling onto Charles Nelson's artfully trash-littered set and heading toward a graffiti-splattered bus stop. The soprano's voice was in superb shape, the tone pure and beautiful, the diction crystalline, the phrasing full of nuance. Her delivery of "Surabaya Johnny," "My Ship," "How Much Longer" and "Nanna's Song" proved especially potent.

The supporting cast offered vivid acting. Rebecca Duren (Jenny II) did not always produce a tightly focused sound or articulate words carefully, but proved capable of considerable expressive flair. Todd Wieczorek (Johnny) used his mostly smooth baritone tellingly; some of his high, soft singing created an especially haunting effect. The combo of pianist Eileen Cornett, trumpeter Brent Finchbaugh and bassist Laura Ruas provided consistently stylish support for the show.

"Songspiel" has something substantive to say about all of us, particularly those troubled souls we would have rather not notice. I imagine Weill would have approved.

Two performances remain this weekend.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:19 PM | | Comments (1)

November 9, 2009

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with Mozart, Mahler and Marin

The last word Gustav Mahler uttered on his deathbed — according to his wife, Alma — was “Mozart.” Perhaps the composer was already hearing sounds from the next world, or simply reliving some of his happiest memories from this one.

The deep connection Mahler felt to Mozart’s music is never more apparent than in the Symphony No. 4, where Mahler offers a melodic directness and transparency of texture that produce a Mozartean grace. That quality was all the more apparent in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s program over the weekend, which paired Mahler’s Fourth with several Mozart items to satisfying effect.

Music director Marin Alsop led a lithe and winsome account of “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” at the start of Sunday’s concert before a not-so-large audience at the Meyerhoff. Funny how such a popular work, one that many a non-classical music fan could hum a few bars of, doesn't actually get played by major orchestras very often. What a perfect little creation this is, a synthesis of 18th-century symmetry and sensibility, sparked by contagious good humor.

The inclusion of three concert arias for soprano on the program provided a strong link to the Mahler symphony, which, of course, famously ends with a soprano solo. The arias also gave the audience an extra opportunity to savor the talents of

Susanna Phillips, an Alabama-born singer with some impressive prizes and performance credits to her name.

She's the real deal, a soprano who can produce a consistently appealing tone that, even with some thinning in the lower register, never loses its silken finish, and who can get to the heart of a phrase. A case in point was the eloquent way that Phillips sculpted the lines of "Vado, ma dove?" Alsop drew refined support for the soprano from the orchestra in each of the arias.

I was terribly disappointed in the conductor's approach to the first movement of the Mahler symphony, which calls for much more in the way of rhythmic pliability and a deeper feeling of nostalgia. Alsop was in metronomic mode, focusing on neatness and structure while passing through some of Mahler's most exquisite writing without leaving any discernible trace of personal feeling.

But things improved markedly after that, starting with some delectable, poetic shaping of the trio sections in the scherzo. The third movement was sensitively paced so that the music always had an underlying motion, but was given a good deal of breathing space as well. Alsop's attention to subtle shifts in tempo and dynamics here yielded a truly Maherlian experience, rich in character and depth. The orchestra sounded marvelous, recalling similar tonal and technical heights in last season's account of Mahler's Ninth with Aslop.

The admirable music-making continued in the finale, which had the additional benefit of sweetly endearing vocalism from Phillips. She conveyed the folk poem about a child's description of heavenly delights with abundant charm and, in the last, gentle moments, an appropriately rapt beauty.  


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:54 PM | | Comments (4)

Latin Grammy for composition commissioned by Baltimore Classical Guitar Society

Nice news for the Baltimore Classical Guitar Society. Gabriela Lena Frank's “Inca Dances,” the work commissioned to salute the society's 20th anniversary a couple years ago, won the 2009 Latin Grammy for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. The awards were announced last week in Miami. 

"Inca Dances" was recorded by superb guitarist Manuel Barrueco and the Cuarteto Latinoamericano on the Tonar Music label, an off-shoot of the BCGS.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:49 AM | | Comments (0)

November 6, 2009

Blast from the Past: Walter Gieseking

This week's trip down Memory Lane leads to Walter Gieseking (Nov. 5, 1895 -- Oct. 26, 1956), a pianist who had an exquisite sense of style that served him in a substantial repertoire. As can be said of all the true keyboard giants, Gieseking elevated the pianistic art. It's exceedingly rare to hear playing with so much elegance and incisiveness today, such judicious rubato and wealth of tone color.

For this blast from the past, I chose some of the German-born pianist's superbly phrased Bach and the opening movement of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 -- Gieseking's imaginative and moving performance of that concerto with Willem Mengelberg conducting is one of my all-time faves:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:52 AM | | Comments (4)

November 5, 2009

Classical music day at the White House (part 2)

Our presidents typically don't have a lot of interest in classical music. Sure, our Chief Executives -- more likely, their First Ladies -- will attend the occasional performance in a concert hall or opera house (especially when there's not much choice, as when they're on state visits to other countries), and there will be periodic appearances by classical artists at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But we're not talking a real high priority for most administrations.

So Wednesday's focus on classical music at the White House, attended by 120 school kids during the day and a crowd of cultural and political types in the evening, was a welcome gesture.

I'm not expecting a massive trickle-down effect that, given the personal popularity of the Obamas and whatever press exposure the day generated, will translate magically into increased music education and attendance at classical music events around the country.

But this classical music day had considerable significance. As pianist Awadagin Pratt said to me after the midday concert for the students, "to have the office of the President support this -- you can't beat that."

Unfortunately, the press did not have access to the workshops/master classes that were given throughout the White House for the students by Pratt, violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and guitarist Sharon Isbin.

But we got to hear the day's two performances in the East Room. I reported earlier on the afternoon one, introduced and attended by Michelle Obama.

Her husband was back from a trip to Wisconsin that day in time to join her and their daughters for the evening performance. The audience included some notable classical music figures. Baltimore Symphony music director Marin Alsop was accompanied by the orchestra's president/CEO Paul Meecham.

Violinist Daniel Heifetz, who runs the excellent Heifetz International Music Institute each summer (it used to be in Annapolis and relocated to New Hampshire several years ago), was there with his wife Janne. I also spotted Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser. And from the acting world, Edward Norton.

The President's senior advisor David Axelrod was up front, chatting before the concert with Sen. Bayh. In his introductory remarks, President Obama welcomed "the many members of Congress who've joined us tonight -- despite what you may have heard, they are actually a civilized bunch."

After describing "a busy day of classical music here at the White House," the president had some kindly advice that drew several laughs. "If any of you in the audience are newcomers to classical music, and aren’t sure when to applaud,

don’t be nervous. Apparently, President Kennedy had the same problem. He and Jackie held several classical music events here, and more than once he started applauding when he wasn’t supposed to. So the social secretary worked out a system where she’d signal him ... Now, fortunately, I have Michelle to tell me when to applaud. The rest of you are on your own."

As it turned out, there were no multi-movement pieces on the program, so the issue of applause never really arose. That program, a mix of styles and sounds, didn't quite add up to a cohesive statement about classical music or its rewards, but there was consistent warmth to the music-making (if not truly outstanding playing from any of the evening's stars).

Isbin started things off with a gently shaded account of Albeniz's "Asturias." Pratt seemed determined to prove President Obama's observation, in the opening remarks, that classical music involves "precision, of course; but there’s also great feeling and improvisation. There’s structure; but there’s also creativity." The pianist certainly played with great feeling, and there was even a sense of the improvisatory as he tore into his own arrangement of Bach's C minor Passacaglia, which took a fanciful turn near the end when Pratt threw in references to other pieces, drawing chuckles with a snippet of "Hail to the Chief."

The day's earlier focus on music students resonated in this concert when Weilerstein repeated her collaborations from the afternoon concert with two very promising young players. Sujari Britt, 8, again revealed delightful technical assurance and warm phrasing in a bit of Boccherini. And Jason Yoder again backed Weilerstein's plangent cello solo in Saint-Saens' "The Swan" with beautifully articulated accompaniment on the marimba. Those two duos earned standing ovations, led by the First Family. On her own, Weilerstein tackled the over-long finale to Kodaly's Sonata for unaccompanied cello with technical and expressive power.

Bell got a chance to make up for his flub in the afternoon during Paganini's "Cantabile," playing it effortlessly and charmingly with Isbin accompanying. The violinist also turned in a typically colorful performance of Ravel's "Tzigane," with Pratt providing mostly smooth work at the keyboard. Bell, Weilerstein and Pratt provided a passionate close to the evening, generating quite a few sparks in the finale of Mendelssohn's D minor Trio. (The whole concert will be broadcast on Sirius XM Satellite Radio at 6 p.m. Friday.)

At the beginning of the evening, President Obama talked about the long history of music in the East Room, mentioning that the first formal concert to be held there was during the administration of Chester Arthur (an operatic program). He made a telling point of noting that, while the audience Wednesday night in the East Room was enjoying the proceedings, "all across America, in community centers and concert halls, in homes and in schools, the sounds of classical music are lifting hearts and spurring imagination, just as they always have. And it’s easy to understand why ... It’s music that defies simple definition even as it speaks to a common, universal language."

It's a message I hope we hear more often, and even more loudly, from the White House.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:46 AM | | Comments (4)

Classical Music day at the White House (part 1)

Spent much of Wednesday at the White House for "classical music day." Will have more to say shortly, but, meanwhile, my story from Thursday's paper may provide a modicum of interest. And here's a shot (AFP/GETTY PHOTO) from the afternoon concert, with Joshua Bell playing a solo work by Vieuxtemps with the First Lady in the front row:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:50 AM | | Comments (0)

November 4, 2009

Conductor Leonard Slatkin hospitalized for heart trouble

Leonard Slatkin, music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and former music director of the National Symphony, was hospitalized over the weekend "after experiencing chest discomfort while conducting a concert with the Rotterdam Philharmonic in the Netherlands," the AP reports.

Slatkin, 65, was treated for "heart problems" and has canceled several concerts, but expects to be back on the podium in Detroit in a few weeks.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:18 AM | | Comments (0)

November 3, 2009

Baltimore School for the Arts students to join Michelle Obama's workshop at White House

When I reported earlier about the classical music day at the White House Wednesday -- the latest in a series of arts education programs launched earlier this year by First Lady Michelle Obama -- I didn't know about Baltimore's representation at the event.

Two students from the Baltimore School for the Arts will be among the 120 middle- and high-schoolers attending the workshops: Nana Adjeiwaa-Manu, a sophomore studying violin and cello; and David Kalwa a senior studying guitar. The day's activities include master classes with classical music stars -- violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, guitarist Sharon Isbin and pianist Awadagin Pratt (he's got a Baltimore connection, too, being one of the Peabody Conservatory's notable alums). The event concludes with a concert in the East Room.

Previous entries in this White House initiative, aimed at drawing increased attention to the need for arts education, have featured jazz, country and Latin music.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:28 AM | | Comments (0)

November 2, 2009

Midori gives brilliant recital for Shriver Hall Concert Series

MidoriIt is hardly news that Midori is a superb violinist. At 14, she was already making waves for her technical polish and professional poise -- she hit the front-page of the New York Times at that age for the feat of playing Leonard Bernstein's "Serenade" flawlessly, despite having to change violins twice in mid-performance due to broken strings, as an awed Bernstein conducted.

Unlike any number of other prodigies, Midori developed steadily and deeply as a musician. Today, at 38, she remains in a class by herself. Her remarkable artistic maturity was reaffirmed Sunday evening in her thoroughly arresting Shriver Hall Concert Series debut.

She opened her program with the rather elusive Hindemith's E-flat major Sonata (Op. 11, No. 1), and proceeded to limn its subtle expressive power eloquently, supported ably by pianist Robert McDonald. Midori's pinpoint intonation, subtly controlled vibrato and poetic phrasing proved equally telling in Brahms' G major Sonata -- just the gentle way the violinist entered the musical dialog was in itself remarkably beautiful and affecting. I would have liked to hear more tonal richness and personality from McDonald in the Brahms work (and elsewhere in the program, for that matter), but the smoothness and clarity of his partnering held its own rewards.

The violinist produced a wealth of atmospheric coloring in

de Falla's "Suite Populaire Espagnole," phrasing the melodic lines like a great singer. For sheer fireworks, there was Ravel's "Tzigane," which Midori tackled with startling brio.

But the summit in this recital of Alpine peaks came when when she had the stage to her herself (along with the overflow from the sold-out house sitting there) for Bach's unaccompanied G minor Sonata. Here, Midori cast quite a spell with her blend of sterling virtuosity and vividly poetic phrasing. Even coughing and other assorted distractions in the audience could not distract from such intensely soulful music-making. (This wasn't the finest hour for the Shriver crowd. In addition -- Midori and McDonald had to wait for a persistent cell phone to be silenced before even starting the recital).

For an encore, the duo offered a delectable account of Kreisler's "Syncopation," a piece that sounds like a cross-pollination of Johann Strauss and Scott Joplin.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:15 PM | | Comments (0)

Cathedral of Mary Our Queen celebrates 50 years with concert

The Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, the striking neo-Deco landmark on the north side of Baltimore, celebrated its 50 years with a free concert Friday night capped by the mighty strains of Saint-Saens' "Organ" Symphony.

The program had a curious start. The Peabody Concert Orchestra assembled in front of the altar to play the short Overture to "Die Fledermaus" by Johann Strauss. A splash of Viennese operetta is just about the last thing I'd expect to hear on a grand occasion in a cathedral. Maybe the approach of Halloween had something to do with it -- the operetta's English title, after all, is "The Bat." Maybe somebody simply wanted a brief, ear-grabbing piece to get things rolling.

Mind you, the Strauss wouldn't have seemed so out of place had it been followed by music at least remotely in the same vein. Instead, the evening continued with

the solemn "Magnificat" for chorus and organ by Robert Twynham, former music director at the cathedral. Talk about non sequiturs. Oh well. Mine's not to reason why.

If there had to be an orchestral kick-off, I might have gone for Beethoven's "Fidelio" Overture, or maybe a colorful orchestral arrangement of something by Bach. Then again, given the considerable length of Twynham's work, I would have skipped the orchestral lead-in -- or turned to the other Strauss, Richard, and settled for his two-minute intro to "Also Sprach Zarathustra," which would have provided one more use for the cathedral's organ.

As for the brush with "Fledermaus," it would have been more enjoyable in a less reverberant space; many a detail in the scoring disappeared in the acoustical haze. But conductor Hajime Teri Murai was in typically energetic mode, and he drew spirited playing from the ensemble, which then filed off to await the Saint-Saens assignment on the second half of the concert.

Twynham's "Magnificat" resonates with several stylistic influences, among them Durufle, and does not quite add up to a totally individualistic statement. But the writing for voices and the organ is colorful, and such moments as the descending harmonies in the "Quia Respixit" movement and the lilting rhythmic motion of "Suscepit Israel" are particularly effective. Some intonation slips aside, the Cathedral Choir, directed by Daniel J. Sansone, sang well; Katherine H. Hunt was the solid organist. The audience rewarded the composer with a sustained ovation.

The Saint-Saens symphony had to fight the same acoustical battle as the overture; cathedrals just aren't kind to orchestras. But Murai conveyed the dramatic parts of the music with considerable power and allowed the slow movement to unfold spaciously. Sansone brought a combination of sensitivity and panache to the organ solos, letting the instrument really rip in the finale. 

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:08 PM | | Comments (0)

November 1, 2009

A voice of optimism and courage: Sylvia McNair

In Sunday's paper I have an interview with Slyvia McNair, the exceptional American soprano who, over the past decade, fought cancer, changed career course, and survived an unexpected divorce. Today, she looks fabulous and exudes an inspiring level of confidence and optimism.

She's in Baltimore rehearsing for Friday's premiere of "Songspiel," a show built around Kurt Weill songs and created for her by the American Opera Theater.

Here's a fun video clip of McNair demonstrating her transition from opera to cabaret:

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:12 PM | | Comments (1)
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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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